What food do you need? Do you often wonder what to eat before a workout? How about after a workout? Me too.
I had trouble finding a balance between eating just enough so I have energy, but also eating the right foods to build muscle, burn fat, and feel fuelled for whatever workout I had in store. Post-workout, I’m not usually hungry, but I know that I have a short 45-minute window where I need to eat some protein in order to maximize my body’s ability to recover after exercise. There are a lot of fuel food rules when it comes to exercise, so it can be confusing!
Seeing as I don’t tend to eat a lot of food before a workout (and sometimes even work out while fasting), and I don’t enjoy eating much after a workout since I’m not hungry, you can imagine that the thought of eating while working out seems extremely unappealing to me.
However, that mindset had to change when I started running long-distance. Food is fuel. My mother introduced me to running when I was about 9 years old, and I’ve always been a pretty active child and teenager. Since I enjoyed running, I started signing up for races. I started with some 6-mile races, then moved up to half-marathons. I stopped myself at 21.1km because my body didn’t like running any longer than 13.1 miles on the road. Then I discovered hiking and trail running. The next natural move for me was to start running races on trails, but I went from running a half-marathon on the road to running a 50km
Between 2016-2018 I ran about 8 Ultramarathons (any race over 50km is considered an ultra). During this time I learned a lot about what my body could and could not handle. I made a lot of mistakes, which is likely why my long-distance running career didn’t last long. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and most of the time, ate too little while running. After a race, I’d have a box of cookies and a beer! After all, I had earned it, right?!
I’m going to go through the types of foods that you can incorporate into your training program, whether it’s before, during, or after a run. I’ll give you a few options in all those categories, but in the end, it will depend on your tastes, how quickly or slowly your body utilizes energy in the form of food, and how you recover.
When to eat
Before you workout, you want to make sure you eat something if you will be moving for an extended period of time. For example, I know I can run 10km without water or food, but some may feel they need a water bottle with them to ensure they are properly hydrated. This will depend on how long it takes to run that distance, as well.
Eating far enough in advance will allow for proper absorption and metabolism and will decrease GI discomfort during your endurance workout. This is usually around 2-3 hours before the start of your workout.
During a workout, aim to eat and drink separately! Eating during the run provides energy, while drinking provides oxygen to your muscles. Nutrition can make or break a training run or race, and it’s one factor you have control over. It can definitely be more convenient to get your hydration and fuel in one bottle. But trust me, the effects will not be the same. Try both methods and see what works best for you.
What to eat
Before a long workout/run, you’ll want your meal to consist of primarily carbohydrates. If you are keto, you will know whether or not your body can handle long-distance on a high-fat diet. Some great sources of carbohydrates are foods like starches and grains, fruit, and milk/yogurt. Your body will break this down into sugar, which your body can use immediately for energy. Whatever it does not use at that moment, it will store in your muscles for energy during exercise or in your liver.
If you do not eat enough, you risk hitting a wall during your workout/run. This is every runner’s worst nightmare, other than digestive issues, which are also quite common!
During your workout/run:
- Real food – This is always my number one choice. I tend to bring small snacks that I can prep easily or that I know will be easily digested while on the move. I particularly love this cookbook, Feed Zone Portables by Chef Biju and Dr. Lim, which showcases real food as a more easily digestible, higher-performance source of energy than prepackaged fuel products. Some of my favorite mid-run snacks are Two-Bite pies, griddle cakes, waffles, baked eggs, sticky bites, rice balls, ride sandwiches, and cookies. The great thing is, many of these types of foods are provided at longer trail races, so I don’t always need to prep, however, it’s a good idea to practice eating these types of foods during your training rather than try them for the first time at a race.
- Other great snack options are nuts, dried fruit, whole fresh fruit (like bananas or oranges), and jerky. It’s not uncommon to see people at an aid station eating burritos, pizza, or ramen. I’ve seen it all! Keep in mind, fatty foods like these will slow digestion, which can leave you feeling tired and sluggish, so this is for those who know they need over a thousand calories to get them through the next few hours of their workout.
- Bars – There are so many great options here. I like that this type of food still takes some work to ingest because you still need to chew and digest. However, this does make it harder to continue your long run without stomach cramps. It will all depend on what you’re used to! I like to pack 1 or 2 of these in my backpack when I’m going for a long hike.
- Personally, I like Clif bars, but I eat these sparingly. I need to exert a lot of energy to feel like I need one of these. They’re very high in carbs and sugar, so if it fits your macros, or you feel you need that extra bit of sugar, grab one!
- Lara bars are lighter and cleaner – most of them have 6 ingredients or less, including nuts and dates. This could make you feel like you need to use the bathroom sooner, though!
- Gels & Gummies – One of the easiest on-the-go snacks for your longer workouts is gels and gummies. They tend to be higher in sugar and carbs, but are the easiest to slurp down during a 26.2-mile race. There are gels made of real food for those with a sensitive stomach. I tend to stay away from the gummies/chews because they’re too delicious, so I guess that’s a good problem to have. Just be careful not to eat too many, especially if they are caffeinated!
- I’m not personally a fan of these. I think I must have had a bad experience in the past with a weird flavored gel and likely never went back. These are fantastic for runs over 13.1 miles and I highly recommend them if you do not have time to prepare any food or are uncertain what will be available at an aid station.
- One brand that got really popular in the last few years is Maurten, the drink that helped power Kipchoge to his world record in Berlin in 2018. It’s packed with 80g of carbs per 500 ml when mixed with water, so you’re getting a lot of carbs in one go. This formula is interesting because it turns liquid to gel in the stomach, wrapping the carbs, so they’re steadily absorbed through the intestine without causing gut problems!
- Drinks – During prolonged activities, you need to give your body the appropriate mix of water, carbohydrates, and electrolytes so your body can work optimally. This will vary from person to person. I sweat a lot and know I likely need more electrolytes, whereas others feel fine after a long run and may get their salts from their food.
- I personally love Spotlyte as an alternative to Gatorade or other sports drinks. This drink is nice because it’s not carbonated, mixed well with water, you can add as little or as much as you’d like, and there are no sweeteners. It’s literally what it says it is: basically salt and lemon water. It’s packed with Magnesium, Zinc, Chloride, Sodium, Potassium, and Vitamin D3. These are all essential when you’re losing electrolytes. Plus, it can help rapidly rehydrate and replenish your emptied energy stores, can support immune function, aid in lowering muscle cramps, and even boost energy, stamina, and performance. Also, I can’t believe there are zero calories or sugar in this product. I love that there is no caffeine in this product. I drink coffee in the morning and do not need any more caffeine.
- Another great option is Nuun. I tend to only have this an hour or two before a workout or after a workout. If I drink this during my run, I start to feel gassy and can’t stop burping. If you don’t do well with carbonated drinks, I’d skip this one. There are so many flavors, and some are specifically for recovery, whereas others are for pre-workout. They’re pretty low in sugar, and even come in caffeinated varieties!
After your long workout, look for a meal that can provide a 4:1 ratio of Carbohydrates to Protein. Some examples of this are:
- 1 medium banana and a glass of low-fat milk
- Almond butter on whole-wheat toast
- A bowl of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk
Your recovery meal should be consumed within 30-60 minutes of finishing your activity. In fact, those who ate within 30 minutes of finishing their workout store three times as much glycogen as those who wait 2 hours to eat. Most athletes store 300 to 500 grams of glycogen when fully fueled, equating to about 90 to 120 minutes of intense exercise. Increasing the amount of glycogen your muscle tissues store is part of getting in shape!
How much food to eat
VeryWell Fit explained it very well on their page. It can be tough to understand exactly how much your body needs before, during or after a race, so using simple guidelines like these can help you eliminate all the guess-work. When you calculate your body weight, one kilogram is equal to 2.2 pounds. Keep that in mind when calculating how much food you need for your specific body type.
- Pre-training: 6-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight during the 24 hours prior to the training or event, with 1-4 grams per kilogram consumed within four hours of the training or event
- During a training or competition: 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour if the activity lasts longer than 60 minutes; 60-70 grams of carbohydrates per hour if the activity is longer than 2.5 hours (or up to 90 grams per hour if you can tolerate that much, but this high level is not recommended in hotter environments)
- Post-training: 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight during the first 3-5 hours after training or the event, plus 0.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
When it comes to hydration, you want to hydrate by drinking about 24 ounces of water for every kilogram you lost during a workout*. Try sipping your water every 15-20 minutes while working out. It can be tough to do this, but it is necessary so you can stay steady throughout your exercise.
Fuelling is not only important before and after a workout. If you want to maintain energy, finish strong, and recover quicker, the trick is to fuel properly. Practice fuelling with different foods and write down how you felt physically and mentally before, during, and after your workout. I know I have had years of experience doing this the wrong way. No matter how young you are, just because you think you can get away with eating junk food, does not mean you can maintain it. I used to eat packs of Oreos while on my runs, then would recover by eating more cookies because I thought I had earned it. Do yourself a favor and listen to your body’s cues. Oreos may work for some, but most people shouldn’t eat a dozen Oreos before a race.
Have you made some of the same mistakes I made? Are you just starting to dip your toes into the endurance exercise field? Have you been an endurance athlete for a long time? Let me know your top 3 tips and tricks or your favorite on-the-go snacks that keep you going strong!
Chelsea has been active most of her life, which led her to become a Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor for the past 7 years. Health and Fitness are not solely dependent on movement, though, and with that understanding, she addresses her client’s other needs, such as diet, mindfulness, and stress management.
When she is not training clients or teaching Yoga, she is finding new activities that keep her mind and body active, such as rock climbing, hiking, listening to podcasts, or playing Board Games with friends. She is constantly working towards finding natural solutions to live as long as possible, inclusive Yoga for all body types, and aiming to find mindfulness in everything she does.